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JoAnn Falletta & BPO record Duke Ellington’s orchestral music

June 18, 2012

The latest project of the Buffalo Philharmonic for Naxos in May of 2012 was one that proved to be a landmark event for the orchestra, and a recording that will never be forgotten. Encouraged by Klaus Heymann, music director JoAnn Falletta began research several years ago for a project that would collect and record the orchestral music of Edward “Duke” Ellington. Like many Americans, JoAnn grew up knowing and loving the songs of Duke Ellington, but only later realized that he was fascinated by the orchestra and had written serious concert compositions for the symphony. The recording brings together on CD Ellington’s Harlem, Three Black Kings, The River, and Black Brown and Beige and includes as an encore the Ellington band’s iconic theme song, Take the A Train. The CD illustrates the stunning depth of Duke Ellington’s musical knowledge and diversity, and his astonishing talent as a composer.

By any measure, Duke Ellington is one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, and a composer who single-handedly elevated jazz to the status of other musical genres. Yet Ellington never said that he was a jazz composer—“I write American music” he simply stated, and he enjoyed exploring a kaleidoscope of musical avenues, including gospel, ballet, classical, theatre, opera and more. In his Black Brown and Beige, the Duke created a tribute to the tradition of African-American religious faith in the first movement, an elegy to the African-Americans who gave their lives in the Civil War and World Wars I and II, and an evocation of the dawning of a unique culture in Harlem in the 1920s in the final movement.

Three Black Kings presents three vibrant royal portraits—Balthazar (the black king of the Magi), King Saul of the Old Testament, and Martin Luther King. Ellington’s love of philosophy is evident in The River, in which he used the meandering waterway as a metaphor for the vicissitudes of our lives. Harlem, his masterpiece, is a powerful, evocative and irresistible tone portrait of Ellington’s own beloved neighborhood.

The Buffalo Philharmonic has a number of musicians highly skilled in the art of jazz, and players like clarinetist Sal Andolina, bassist Brett Shurtliffe and violinist Amy Licata stepped forward to take incredible improvised solos. Kleinhans Music Hall was transformed into the Cotton Club in Harlem, much to the delight of the audience who listened to their classical orchestra swing to the infectious harmonies and rhythms of this extraordinary composer.

To prepare for the recording, the Buffalo Philharmonic mounted a two-week Ellington Festival that will long be remembered with great pleasure by audiences and orchestra. After the final recording session with producer Tim Handley, JoAnn remarked somewhat sadly to principal trumpeter Alex Jokipii, “Well, next week we have to go back to reality” (in this case, our classical season finale of Mahler Symphony No 3). “ I guess I’m ready”, Alex replied, “but it sure was fun spending all this time with the Duke”. Amen to that!

Says JoAnn: “We can hardly wait until the release of the orchestral music of Duke Ellington. Thanks to Klaus Heymann and Naxos for their passionate belief in the discovery and recording of American music!”

Photos from the recording session:

Conductor JoAnn Falletta
BPO bassist Brett Shurtliffe & pianist Dave Mancini
BPO’s saxophone section
Conductor JoAnn Falletta & producer Tim Handley
Producer Tim Handley at the recording studio with BPO musicians

JoAnn Falletta Biography & Discography

Duke Ellington Biography & Discography


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